There’s no more striking proof that Oakland County has transformed from GOP stronghold to Democratic haven than the 2020 election of former Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter as county executive. Coulter, 60, is the state’s first openly LGBTQ person to lead a county, having dispatched former state Sen. Mike Kowall by 11 points on Nov. 3.
Coulter was appointed to the post by the Oakland County Commission in August 2019 following the death of L. Brooks Patterson, the longtime GOP boss who made a career of resisting cooperation with Detroit or neighboring counties. The new chief sees the future quite differently, and now he has an electoral mandate to pursue more regional efforts,
as he explains to Hour Detroit.
Hour Detroit: This is an obvious question, but I can’t find your answer anywhere. How did you come out publicly?
Dave Coulter: You know, there wasn’t a moment or a declaration. The first time it became publicly relevant was when I ran in 2002 for the Oakland County Commission in a district that included Ferndale, Hazel Park, and a little bit of Royal Oak. I decided to run as an open person, as myself. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to think they could use that against me.
Was there a time when you wondered if you could even run for office because you’re gay?
Wonder about it? I assumed I couldn’t. I’ve been interested in politics and government since high school. But when I realized my sexuality in my 20s, running just wasn’t feasible. There were no role models of openly gay people in office. I decided I would stay involved in politics, help other candidates, but I never imagined a path for myself to elective office back then.
What changed your mind?
Moving to Ferndale. I was born and raised in Macomb County, in St. Clair Shores. When I came to Ferndale in 1991, I found a diverse, accepting community. I got to know some of the politically active people. There was still a question of whether an openly gay person could win, even in Ferndale. But that acceptance made me think it was possible.
You’re the first Democrat elected to your new job. What has changed about Oakland County?
A lot of people didn’t recognize how the county’s demographics were changing because Brooks was still there and he was larger than life. We have a lot of good-paying jobs here in IT and engineering, so we have a workforce of younger, educated voters who tend to be more progressive. And the foreign-born population has expanded significantly over the last couple of decades. Plus, we used to be a moderate Republican county, and many of those people are turned off by the increasingly conservative bent to their party. Then Trump poured an accelerant on that phenomenon.
“You can still be fired from your job or kicked out of your rental house for being gay in this county. ”
— Dave coulter
The 2020 primary got very ugly, with TV ads from Treasurer Andy Meisner that implied you are corrupt and/or racist. Have you and he spoken since?
Oh, sure. Andy was my state representative for six years while I was county commissioner. We had endorsed each other in various elections over the years. Andy reached out to me after the election; we shared a beer and talked about how we move forward. I was very angry, but I’m in a different place now. Nobody likes a sore winner.
Patterson was known for opposing regional cooperation. How about you?
When you live in Ferndale, which borders Detroit, you understand that our issues don’t respect these artificial geographic boundaries. These are our neighbors and our friends. The metro Detroit area is in competition with other regions in the country and the world for talent and jobs. This notion that our competition is Detroit or Wayne or Macomb was really shortsighted to me.
What will change under your leadership?
I talk with the other leaders in the region often, and that’s intentional. I’ll give you a small example that was very gratifying to me. When COVID-19 hit, [Detroit] Mayor Duggan, because he used to run a health system, understood what this was going to be like and became laser-focused on testing. Mike was out of the gate with the first drive-thru testing
location in the region, but he very intentionally put it at the State Fairgrounds at Eight Mile and Woodward to make it accessible to people in Oakland and Macomb. That was special to me, an indication that we can work on these kinds of problems together.
Do you feel a special responsibility to LGBTQ people given your position?
Of course, yes. I want to represent well. And even though we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress, we’re not there yet. You can still be fired from your job or kicked out of your rental house for being gay in this county. So there’s still work to do.